May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Eager to work

Eager to work

The value of children’s paid work on Lombok’s tobacco plantations presents a challenge to emotive arguments for the wholesale banning of child labour

Maria Florencia Amigo

     A child worker ties up tobacco leaves
     Maria Florencia Amigo

During the tobacco season, Isa rushes home after school at noon, has a quick lunch, and goes straight to work, where she spends the afternoon tying tobacco leaves onto poles to be placed in the kilns for drying. Still dressed in her school uniform, she sits patiently working until it gets too dark for her to see. She told me she would work longer if she could, but it’s not possible to do the work properly without enough light. Isa is around eight years of age.

Isa is paid a per piece rate, so the more poles she can tie, the more money she earns. Each afternoon she makes about Rp 8,000 (A$ 1). She keeps Rp 1,000 for her own treats or savings, and gives the rest to her parents to help with household expenses. Both her brothers also earn money during the tobacco season, as do most of her school friends.

Isa lives her life within an economic context in which she has very little influence. She is poor, and the jobs in the tobacco plantations are the only ones she has access to. The money she brings home is crucial to the survival of her household. Isa is also able to keep some money for herself and decide how she will spend it, lend it or save it.

Working for the family

Tobacco cultivation has come to dominate the economy of the eastern part of Lombok since the early 1990s. In line with the liberalisation of the economy, agricultural transformation and the expansion of multinationals, the introduction of the commercial cultivation of tobacco in the area triggered a series of social and economic changes. Although opportunities for (poorly) paid work expanded exponentially, so did dependence on a cash economy, consumerism, and a lack of work and money during the rest of the year.

The cultivation of tobacco is a very labour intensive and financially risky business. The work is hard and the pay is low. But because it does offer the possibility of significant profits, small landholders got involved in order to escape the subsistence cycle. Tobacco farmers need lots of workers who can complete labour-intensive tasks cheaply. Children have become a significant part of the workforce because a very large number of workers is needed to cultivate tobacco. Also, the returns for labour are so low that it does not provide adults with an adequate income. In this region, and in many other tobacco cultivation areas in the world, children are about one third of the labour force. So every year from April to October, boys, girls, men and women, young and old, are seen working in the tobacco fields and kilns, and in trucks on the roads of Lombok transporting the tobacco bales to the warehouses.

In the same way as the introduction of tobacco transformed the structure of the local economy, it also provoked socio-economic changes both outside and within the household in East Lombok. The availability of wage employment and the dependence on cash has intensified the stratification of households in the village. The cash economy has fed the individual desire to acquire consumer goods, making family units more dependent on it and thus putting pressure on the members of households to bring in money. The story of Marriuni, another young child, exemplifies this. She said, ‘My father never gives us money. He is extremely stingy. When he divorced my mother, she went crazy, really crazy, because we were seven children and we had no money. One of my little brothers died.’ When asked what she does with the money she earns from tying up tobacco leaves she answered, ‘When I get money I take a couple of hundred rupiahs and I give the rest to her. If I get Rp 3000 from binding leaves, I take Rp 200 to buy snacks and I give the rest to her. We need that money to buy rice.’

Marriuni is aware that she represents a cost to her family and is committed to contributing financially to cover this. Children in rural East Lombok work in tobacco plantations because – along with their mothers, fathers and older siblings – they are very aware of the difficulties of making a living and are committed to contributing with the economic well-being of their households. Children know that their households need cash and that they can help obtain it by working. Their employment on the tobacco plantations helps guarantee the survival of their households.

Working for themselves

But children do not just work for their families. They also work for themselves. The availability of paid work has given children a sort of emancipation that did not exist before. The bulk of the money children earn is usually given to a parent or older sibling to help alleviate the costs the child incurs, such as clothing, food or schooling. But most children – even the youngest and the poorest like Isa and Marriuni – make their own decisions about what they do with their money. This fact is totally ignored by conventional models of child labour, which see the household as allocating the child’s time.

Ir is a ten-year-old who comes from a better off family. He works as a stoker, helping supervise a kiln’s brazier at night. This is a very wearying task, especially for someone attending school, as the stokers sleep by the kiln and have to get up several times to check the fuel. Every stoker stresses how tiring it is. Ir’s unusual abilities are recognised by adults for he has been working as a part-time stoker for the past three years. Ir seems very committed to his job and happy to have it. But when asked if he liked the task, he answered with a laconic ‘yes’, while gesturing with his fingers and insinuating that he does it for the money. At the end of the tobacco season, Ir was paid Rp 125,000 for his work as a stoker. He gave Rp 100,000 (A$ 12.5) to his mother to buy clothes for him for the upcoming holiday, kept Rp 5,000 (A$ 0.62) to buy snacks for the weeks to come and saved the rest with his school teacher.

The availability of paid work has given children a sort of emancipation that did not exist before

Children have a variety of ways of saving their cash. Moneyboxes are common in all houses. Some are homemade from clay or bamboo and during the tobacco season, children try to fill them so that they have a substantial amount when it is over. Some children, like Ir, also ‘bank’ money with their school teacher. Others decide to keep their savings secret as possible. One eight year old boy called Rodi hid his savings from his work in the crack of a bamboo pole inside a kiln. According to Ir, people only discovered his savings when he fell from the pole and was knocked unconscious. ‘He hid this money there so that no one would know and his parents would not ask him for it’, Ir said. Some children even form rotating credit groups, or arisan – a common saving strategy among Indonesian adults. Atuna, an eleven year old, and eight of her classmates had organised an arisan involving six girls and two boys, who had agreed to contribute Rp 200 (A$ 0.02) each day, meaning that each member would get a lump sum of Rp 1,400 (A$ 0.18) each week.

Children clearly live their lives within systems that limit their autonomy, and because of their subordinate position, these limitations may be more imposing than they are for adults. They are embedded in families and households, kinship and religious systems and schools, usually as the least influential members. Their motivations, decisions and actions are both triggered and controlled by these institutions and systems. It is important to acknowledge these constraints. Equally important, however, is an awareness of children’s active role in the reproduction and transformation of these structural conditions. As part of this, it is crucial to take into account the value children’s paid work has not only for their families and their communities, in the context of cash dependency and consumerism, but also for themselves.

Maria Florencia Amigo ( is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Children and Families Research Centre, Macquarie University.

Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

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